The Fool on the Hill
|"The Fool on the Hill"|
Cover of the Northern Songs sheet music
|Song by the Beatles|
|from the album Magical Mystery Tour|
|Released||27 November 1967 (US LP) |
8 December 1967 (UK EP)
|Recorded||25–27 September and 20 October 1967|
"The Fool on the Hill" is a song by the English rock band the Beatles. It was written and sung by Paul McCartney (credited to Lennon–McCartney) and recorded in 1967. It was included on the Magical Mystery Tour EP and album, and presented in the Magical Mystery Tour television film, with a promotional sequence filmed near Nice in France on 30 and 31 October 1967. The song was a top ten hit single for Sérgio Mendes & Brasil '66 in 1968.
The song's lyrics describe the titular "fool", a solitary figure who is not understood by others, but is actually wise. Paul McCartney said he first got the idea for the premise from the Dutch design collective the Fool, who were the Beatles' favourite designers in 1967 and told him that they had derived their name from the Tarot card of the same name. McCartney said the song relates to a character like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi:
"Fool on the Hill" was mine and I think I was writing about someone like Maharishi. His detractors called him a fool. Because of his giggle, he wasn't taken too seriously. It was this idea of a fool on the hill, a guru in a cave, I was attracted to ... I was sitting at the piano at my father's house in Liverpool hitting a D 6th chord, and I made up "Fool on the Hill".
Alistair Taylor, in his book Yesterday, reports a mysterious incident involving a man who inexplicably appeared near him and McCartney during a walk on Primrose Hill and then disappeared again, soon after McCartney and Taylor had conversed about the existence of God. In Taylor's account, this incident prompted McCartney to write "The Fool on the Hill". 
McCartney played the song for John Lennon during a writing session for "With a Little Help from My Friends" in March 1967. At this point, McCartney had the melody but the lyrics remained incomplete until September. Lennon told him to write it down; McCartney said he did not need to, because he was sure he would not forget it. In his 1980 interview with Playboy magazine, Lennon said, "Now that's Paul. Another good lyric. Shows he's capable of writing complete songs."
The song involves alternations of D major and D minor in a similar manner to Cole Porter's alternations of C minor and C major in "Night and Day". The verses are in the major key while the chorus changes to the parallel minor, indicating the confusion implied by the song title. Ian MacDonald says the change to the parallel minor key effectively conveys "the simultaneously literal and metaphorical sense of the sun going behind a cloud".
The D major tonality that begins with an Em7 chord on "Nobody wants to know him" moves through a ii7–V7–I6–vi7–ii7–V7 progression until the shift to the Dm tone and key on "but the fool". According to musicologist Dominic Pedler, other highlights are the use in the Dm section of a minor sixth (B♭) melody note on the word "sun" (with a Dm♯5 chord) and a major ninth (E melody note) on the word "world" (with a Dm chord).
The Beatles recorded "The Fool on the Hill" for their Magical Mystery Tour film project. It was the band's first project following the death of their manager, Brian Epstein; according to publicist Tony Barrow, McCartney envisaged the film establishing a "whole new phase of their career" with himself as "the film producer of the Beatles". McCartney first taped a solo demo of the song on 6 September 1967. This version was later released on the Anthology 2 compilation. Recording began in earnest on 25 September, with significant overdubs by the Beatles on 26 September. Mark Lewisohn said that the 26 September version was "almost a re-make". A take from 25 September – noticeably slower, somewhat heavier and with slightly different vocals – is also included on Anthology 2. After another session on 27 September, where McCartney added another vocal, the song sat for a month before flutes were added on 20 October.
Sequence in Magical Mystery Tour film
According to Alistair Taylor, McCartney "disappeared" in late October and it was only on his return that the others learned that he had gone to France to film a sequence for "The Fool on the Hill". McCartney flew to Nice with cameraman Aubrey Dewar and filmed the sequence at dawn on 31 October. The location was in the mountains inland from the city. McCartney mimed to the song as Dewar filmed the sunrise. The clip was the only musical segment filmed at an exterior location and using professional photography, and the shoot took place when the rest of the Magical Mystery Tour footage was well into the editing stage. Peter Brown, who was coordinating the Beatles' business affairs following Epstein's death, recalled that McCartney phoned him from Nice asking for new camera lenses to be sent out for the shoot. According to Brown, the cost for the location filming was considerable, at £4000. In Taylor's description, the footage was "terrific" and "really complemented the song".
The clip shows McCartney in contemplation and cavorting on the hillside. He recalled that he "ad-libbed the whole thing" and that his directions to Dewar were: "Right get over there: Let me dance. Let me dance from this rock to this rock. Get a lot of the sun rising ..." According to author Philip Norman, while the non-musical portions of Magical Mystery Tour were uninspired, the "serial pop video" aspect of the TV film succeeds as a "tour through three rapidly emerging solo talents" in Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. He says the sequence for McCartney's "almost 'Yesterday'-size future standard" shows the singer "on a Provençal mountainside, all big brown eyes and turned-up overcoat". Author Jonathan Gould describes the sequence as "over-lush footage of Paul on a hill ... playing the Fool as if the Fool were a model in a fashion ad".
"The Fool on the Hill" and the five other songs from the television film were compiled for release on a double EP, except in the United States, where Capitol Records chose to augment the lineup with the Beatles' non-album single tracks from 1967 and create an LP record. The Capitol release took place on 27 November 1967, while Parlophone issued the EP on 8 December. "The Fool on the Hill" appeared as the opening track on side three in the EP package. On the LP, it was sequenced as the second track on side one, following "Magical Mystery Tour".
The Magical Mystery Tour film was broadcast in the UK on BBC1 on 26 December, but in black and white rather than colour. It was the Beatles' first critical failure. As a result of the unfavourable reviews, networks in the US declined to show the film there. Brown blamed McCartney for its failure. Brown said that during a private screening for management staff, the reaction had been "unanimous ... it was awful", yet McCartney was convinced that the film would be warmly received, and ignored Brown's advice to scrap the project and save the band from embarrassment.
In 1973, three years after the Beatles' break-up, "The Fool on the Hill" was included on the band's compilation album 1967–1970. The song plays over the opening titles of the 2010 Jay Roach film Dinner for Schmucks. It was claimed that Paramount/DreamWorks paid $1.5 million to buy the rights for the song in perpetuity. In 2011, a new mix of "The Fool on the Hill" was issued as an iTunes-exclusive bonus track with the download release of the Beatles' 2006 album Love.
Unlike the film, the Magical Mystery Tour EP and album were well received by critics. Bob Dawbarn of Melody Maker described the EP as "six tracks which no other pop group in the world could begin to approach for originality combined with the popular touch". In Saturday Review magazine, Mike Jahn highlighted "The Fool on the Hill" as an example of how the album successfully conveyed the Beatles' "acquired Hindu philosophy and its subsequent application to everyday life", in this instance by describing "a detached observer, a yogin, who meditates and watches the world spin".
Robert Christgau, writing for Esquire in May 1968, said the song "shows signs of becoming a favorite of the Simon & Garfunkel crowd and the transcendental meditators, who deserve it. A callow rendering of the outcast-visionary theme, it may be the worst song the Beatles have ever recorded." Christgau added that McCartney "should know better by now", but also conceded that the new songs were meant to be heard in the context of the Magical Mystery Tour TV film. In his article "Rock and Art" for Rolling Stone in July that year, Jon Landau rued that the basic values of rock 'n' roll music had been lost to an artistic aesthetic, a trend he found particularly evident in the Beatles' recent work. He said the song represented the "complete negation of their earlier selves" and contained "all the qualities that the early Beatles sought to deflate: it is pious, subtly self-righteous, humorless and totally unphysical."
NME critics Roy Carr and Tony Tyler described the song as "exquisite" and paired it with Lennon's "I Am the Walrus" as being "by far the most outstanding cuts" on the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack. Writing in his book The Beatles Forever, Nicholas Schaffner identified the same tracks as "two of the most impressive Beatle songs ever". He said "The Fool on the Hill" was among McCartney's "most irresistible, universal" ballads, with a lyric that successfully transposed into pop music the literary theme established through fairy tales, through stories of monarchs prizing their court jester over more learned counsel, and in Dostoevsky's popular novel The Idiot.
Bob Woffinden said the film project was undertaken too quickly after Epstein's death, at McCartney's insistence, and McCartney's misguided leadership was also reflected in the "particularly narcissistic" sequence he created for "The Fool on the Hill". Tim Riley writes that unlike the sharp insights offered by fools in Shakespeare's works, the lyrics teach the listener "Little or nothing, except how to pull the heartstrings." Riley concludes: "Possibilities in this song outweigh its substance – it's the most unworthy Beatles standard since 'Michelle.'" Ian MacDonald admires the melody as "poignantly expressive" and says the lyric "skirts sentiment by never committing itself, remaining open to several different interpretations". He describes the song as "an airy creation, poised peacefully above the world in a place where time and haste are suspended" and says that its "timeless appeal ... lies in its paradoxical air of childlike wisdom and unworldliness". Writing for Rough Guides, Chris Ingham includes "The Fool on the Hill" among the Beatles' essential songs. He calls the melody "bewitching" and adds: "part of the joy of the piece is the finely judged lyrical ambiguity that, along with the beautiful spaciousness of the arrangement (all flutes, recorders, bass harmonica and whispery brushes on the drums), allows a myriad of implied meanings to float beguilingly into the imagination of the listener."
In 2012, "The Fool on the Hill" was ranked the 420th-best classic rock song of all time by New York's Q104.3. In 2006, Mojo ranked it 71st in the magazine's list of "The 101 Greatest Beatles Songs". In 2018, the music staff of Time Out London ranked it at number 34 on their list of the best Beatles songs.
McCartney live performances
The Beatles were no longer performing concerts when they released "The Fool on the Hill". McCartney considered including it in the set list for his and Wings' 1975–76 world tour – the first time he conceded to playing Beatles songs with Wings – but decided against it. Wings performed it throughout their 1979 tour of the UK.
McCartney included "The Fool on the Hill" on his 1989–1990 world tour. Keen to embrace his Beatles past, he played it on the same multi-coloured piano he had used for writing during the 1960s; he introduced the instrument as the "Magic Piano". His performances of the song incorporated sound bites from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. In his press conference on the final day of the world tour, McCartney commented that the song was about "someone who's got the right answer but people tend to ridicule him". A live version from McCartney's concert at London's Wembley Arena on 13 January 1990 was included on the album Tripping the Live Fantastic. The song surfaced again for McCartney's 2001–2002 tours, and another live version appeared on the Back in the U.S. album.
Sérgio Mendes & Brasil '66
|"The Fool on the Hill"|
|Single by Sérgio Mendes & Brasil '66|
|from the album Fool on the Hill|
|B-side||"So Many Stars"|
|Producer(s)||Sérgio Mendes, Herb Alpert, Jerry Moss|
Sérgio Mendes & Brasil '66 recorded "Fool on the Hill", using their approach of marrying a simple bossa nova rhythm with a string accompaniment. The lead vocal was by Lani Hall. Released as a single in late July 1968, the song reached number 6 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and topped Billboard's Easy Listening chart for six weeks. It was also the title track of Mendes' 1968 album Fool on the Hill.
In 2018, Mendes recalled that he was introduced to the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour album over Christmas 1967 by Herb Alpert, his producer. Impressed with the melody of "The Fool on the Hill", he thought, "Wow, I think I can do a totally different arrangement." He said McCartney later wrote him a letter to thank him for his version of the song.
By the late 1970s, "The Fool on the Hill" was one of McCartney's most widely recorded ballads. According to Ingham, it was especially popular among cabaret performers during the late 1960s. In 1971, a recording by Shirley Bassey peaked at number 48 on the UK Singles Chart. Helen Reddy recorded the song for All This and World War II, a 1976 film in which wartime newsreel was set to a soundtrack of Lennon–McCartney songs. According to author Robert Rodriguez, it was one of the few "clever juxtapositions" in the film, as the song plays over footage of Adolf Hitler at his mountain hideaway in Berchtesgaden. Nine years after the duo disbanded, Eurythmics reunited in January 2014 to perform "The Fool on the Hill" for The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to The Beatles.
The following are among the many other artists who have covered the song: the Four Tops, Björk, Sarah Vaughn, Aretha Franklin, Petula Clark, John Williams, Santo & Johnny, Ray Stevens, Bobby Gentry, Eddie Fisher, Lena Horne with Gábor Szabó, Micky Dolenz, Stone the Crows, Vera Lynn, Enoch Light, Andre Kostelanetz, the Boston Pops, Corry Brokken, the King's Singers, Zé Ramalho, Bud Shank, Mulgrew Miller, the Chopsticks, Mark Mallman, Lana Cantrell, Barry Goldberg, Sharon Tandy, Libby Titus, the Singers Unlimited, Isabelle Aubret and Eddy Mitchell.
According to Ian MacDonald (except where noted), the following musicians played on the Beatles' recording:
- Paul McCartney – vocals, piano, acoustic guitar, recorder, bass, penny whistle
- John Lennon – harmonica, Jew's harp
- George Harrison – 12-string acoustic guitar, harmonica
- Ringo Starr – drums, maracas, finger cymbals
- Christopher Taylor, Richard Taylor, Jack Ellory – flutes
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